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In a rare move, dozens of countries have stingingly rebuked Saudi Arabia’s treatment of detained activists, including imprisoned women’s rights campaigners. The statement included all 28 European Union members, as well as many other Western nations, and was issued in this Thursday’s session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The statement condemned Saudi Arabia’s “continuing arrests and arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders,” as well as its use of counterterrorism laws to silence peaceful dissent, according to the New York Times. It explicitly mentioned several women’s rights activists including Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef – all of whom pushed for women’s rights to drive in their country, only to be detained a month before the kingdom started issuing driver’s licenses to women.
Previously, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet had urged the kingdom to release these activists from imprisonment and alleged torture; activists say detainees have been subjected to electric shocks, flogging and even sexual assault. Last week, Saudi Arabia’s prosecutor announced that some of the activists, who had been held for almost a year without formal charges, were being referred to trial. The statement did not name which women or say how many were being prosecuted and for what charges.
The rebuke was read aloud in session by Harald Aspelund, Iceland’s ambassador to the Geneva, and called for the release of activists held in the country as well as cooperation with a UN-led examination of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “The circumstances of Mr Khashoggi’s death reaffirm the need to protect journalists and to uphold the right to freedom of expression around the world,” the statement read. “Investigations into the killing must be independent and transparent. Those responsible must be held to account.”
This move by the council is the strongest statement made since its creation. It was led by Iceland, who had been recently elected to the council to replace the United States after President Trump pulled out last year claiming the council was too hypocritical. In a statement issued after the decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Its membership includes authoritarian governments with unambiguous and abhorrent human rights records, such as China, Cuba and Venezuela. And the council’s continued and well-documented bias against Israel is unconscionable.”
Nadim Baba, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, noted the significance of the statement, particularly its signatures from all 28 EU members. The countries have clearly been frustrated by the lack of justice after Khashoggi’s murder, with Baba claiming that “They’ve been under pressure as well to do more against Saudi Arabia over its perceived human rights record, not just at home with the arrest and prepared trials of those women activists, but over its record in the war in Yemen as well.”
The Human Rights Watch called the statement “the first ever collective action” at the council on rights in Saudi Arabia, a country that has typically been successful in avoiding criticism within the UN body. In response, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva condemned the use of “joint statements for political causes”, according to a report from France 24.
Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, is leading the United Nations investigation into Khashoggi’s death. “ It’s an important step in ensuring accountability. The international community has a collective responsibility to highlight human rights violations in a country that until now had managed to escape that kind of scrutiny,” Callamard told Reuters.
Given the general unwillingness of countries like the United States to take a stand against Saudi Arabia, this move marks a new and willing coalition to continue to hold the country accountable.